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Essential workers in Sandy and Estacada navigate serving public while keeping safe during the COVID-19 pandemic

COURTESY PHOTO  - Rhonda Abbett-Carey and Robin Carey have been married for seven years and plan to keep Valentines Day low-key this year.

In normal times, daily social interactions between workers and their customers are often appreciated. Many who went into the healthcare, transportation or public service professions, did so because they genuinely enjoy helping and being around people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways changed how people not only think about, but complete their jobs. At the top of many essential workers' concerns: keeping their loved ones safe.

As sweethearts across the country prepare for Valentine's Day on Feb. 14, we've talked to couples in the East County, Sandy and Estacada area about how they've weathered the past year together. Rhonda Abbett-Carey, 51, with Sandy Transit, had more than just her husband Robin Carey to think about when driving a bus for SAM.

Both Abbett-Carey's mother and 6-year-old grandson also live with her, and her mother is currently undergoing treatment for lung cancer.

"In the beginning when this started, I felt so blessed to work for a company that really goes out of their way to take care of us," Abbett-Carey said.

SAM admininstrators even offered all the drivers and staff the option to stay home if they had health reasons they were concerned about. Abbett-Carey took them up on that offer for about the first month and a half out of concern for her mother, but then decided to return to work.

"I thought 'What's scarier, losing everything I've work for in life or getting COVID?'" she explained, and while she does still worry about her family's health, she added that not working is just not an option.

Abbett-Carey has worked for SAM, driving the Sandy-Gresham commuter bus for about 6 years. Before that, she drove a school bus.

"I like knowing that I'm helping people get to their destinations," she said. "I know there are a lot of people who don't have a way to get where they need to go."

She added that while driving the commuter bus, she has gotten to know the regulars on her route. About six or seven of those regulars stopped riding during the pandemic.

"I'm a little more cautious and I have to constantly monitor people when driving," Abbett-Carey said of the "new normal" on her route. "Those people I haven't seen in a while, I do worry about them and hope they're staying safe and healthy."

To ensure that her family isn't put at risk by her job, Abbett-Carey has developed a new routine when she returns home after work. Now, every day she works, she goes through the shop into the laundry room, strips her work clothes and throws them into the washing machine. She then showers before greeting her family.

While that is something she's only done since the pandemic began, Abbett-Carey says she's had to be cautious with what she's bringing home for a while now — ever since her mom was diagnosed with cancer and came to live with them.

PMG PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN  - Rhonda Abbett-Carey has driven the SAM Gresham-Sandy commuter bus for six years and feels blessed to work for a company that has cared about her health from day one of the pandemic.

"We've had to (be careful) since day one," she explained. "I work in a cesspool. Even before COVID, I could've brought home the regular flu or a cold and that could've affected mom worse than us. Her immune system is so low, we had to be careful before COVID. When you love your family, you do what you can to take care of them."

Through this global crisis and their own hardships at home, Abbett-Carey says she has been blessed to have her husband Robin.

"If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be able to care for my mom," she explained. "I wouldn't be able to work, (and) I have to work. He's the only reason my family is able to make it."

Rhonda and Robin have been together for 7 years, and love doing outdoorsy things like riding horses, driving quads and spending time with family together. Abbett-Carey explained that even before the pandemic, they usually made Valentine's Day more of a family event and had a big family dinner.

"That won't be happening this year," she said. "(This pandemic) is definitely forcing families apart. We likely won't be doing anything for Valentine's Day, (but) I'll probably get him a card and let him know how much I appreciate him."

So far, Abbett-Carey's household has been fortunate to not contract COVID-19, though she has known about 10 different people who have not been so lucky.

"I have been fortunate not to get it or lose someone from it," she said. "My heart goes out to those who have."

Overcoming crisis as a blended family

For many who have been fortunate enough not to contract COVID-19 this past year, stress and isolation have still weighed heavily. For Sandy Fire Division Chief Jason McKinnon, 47, and his family, they unfortunately have experienced both.

For months, McKinnon's wife Stephanie, 45, who works for a local dental office, stayed home to help their four high schoolers with distance learning. Then only about a week after returning to work in November, her office was notified of a positive case of COVID-19.

Sure enough, Stephanie then tested positive, as did Jason and their daughter. Their three sons were lucky to not contract it, so the three who were infected quickly quarantined themselves to their rooms and traded off times in the shared spaces of their house. Jason and Stephanie also called their respective ex-spouses with whom they share custody, explained the situation and that they would keep the kids home until they were all COVID-free.

McKinnon was the first of only two cases of COVID in the Sandy Fire Department. Before, and since having COVID, he says he and his wife do take immediate steps when they get home from work to minimize potential spread, such as showering right after they get through the door.

"It was kind of a unique experience," he said. "Our quarantine ended right on Thanksgiving week."

Regardless, the family downsized their holidays and didn't see other family.

"I think initially (at the beginning of the pandemic) for both my wife and I, it was a big deal," McKinnon explained. "We both have immunocompromising issues — her with asthma and I with an immunosuppressant. We kept the kids home and had to explain to them the risk of it to us, their older parents. We kept fairly isolated. I don't want to say we panicked, but there was concern. I think it became more real after we were infected."

COURTESY PHOTO - Jason and Stephanie McKinnon have been married for two years and have weathered the pandemic together with their blended family of six.

Fortunately, when McKinnon and his wife did become ill, the symptoms were minimal, and both are back to work and healthy.

That said, the stresses of almost constantly being isolated together has been apparent in the McKinnon household.

"We as a family had a lot of plans canceled," McKinnon said of the past year. "Obviously when you're cooped up at home together a lot and not able to go out and be around other people, you have to learn how to interact. With teenagers, that's an extra stressful piece."

He added that counseling and making specific alone time for themselves has been helpful. Stephanie often spends time running on the treadmill to claim her "me time" and Jason opts for his own workout.

"We've had to really learn to communicate," McKinnon explained. "And we have to set aside time for our own personal health."

Stephanie and Jason have been together for four and a half years and married for 2 years. They each have two kids respectively in their blended family, with all four kids only a year apart — one freshman, one sophomore, one junior and one senior in high school.

For Valentine's Day, McKinnon said, he and his wife typically go out and do something like get dinner at a restaurant.

"This year, obviously, it'll be an order out and take home or dine outside kind of night," he explained. He added that it was only recently that he and his wife had their first date night in a long time by dining outside at a local eatery.

"We definitely believe in supporting local," he said. "We also have a unique relationship in that we're both super busy and the kids are priority number one."

PMG FILE PHOTO - Jason McKinnon is a division chief for Sandy Fire Department and one of many frontline workers taking extra precautions to keep their families safe.

While McKinnon admits that the pandemic has brought extra stress for his family, he says his relationship with his wife remains strong, if not grown stronger.

"It's definitely changed what normal is," he said. "But I think it's also strengthened our relationship. She's amazing — that's no different. She's supportive; she's attentive and she's communicative. She's my person."

Precautions for a pandemic and pregnancy

Estacada couple Buddy and Megan Diebel have been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic with their two-year-old son, Elias. They are expecting another baby in March.

Prior to joining Estacada's Orchid Health team last September, Megan worked in a laboratory at Providence Health & Services.

"I had to dress down at the door and be really cautious. With (COVID-19) being so new, we were taking precautions in the lab, but you never know what you're bringing home," she said. "That causes a lot of stress for us, even now working at the front desk (at Orchid). We wear masks and we interact behind a glass cover, but there's still that stress and that risk that you might be bringing something home to your family."

To ensure everyone's safety, Megan and Buddy have kept their social circle small.

"We limit our visitations, even with our family. Our parents are older and have underlying health conditions and we worry about them getting sick," Megan said.

The new addition to their family has also been on their minds during this time.

"Getting the news that she was pregnant, while also knowing she's a frontline worker, that has probably concerned me the most during the entire pandemic. That was a very big wakeup call," Buddy said.

"Now that we're getting really close to delivering, we've closed our (social) circle even more," Megan added. "If either of us gets COVID, it changes delivery a lot for us. He wouldn't be there. I would have to wear a mask the whole time. We're concerned about that because we need each other. I need him to be there."

COURTESY PHOTO - Megan, Buddy and Elias Diebel have been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic together in Estacada.

Meanwhile, Elias has enjoyed spending time outside during this time of social distancing.

"I take him out for a walk every day," said Buddy. "He knows the names of the horses on the road, and the chicken and sheep. We have a creek on the property, so we have all kinds of options to keep him distracted. It's kind of actually been a blessing because it's made us slow down and spend time with him outside."

Because of the pandemic, several elements of Elias' routine have changed.

"Our son is such a people person, and his favorite thing in the world used to be going to the grocery store and riding in the cart," Buddy said. "But he's so active and everything. We've tried to mask, we tried this and we tried that, so I pretty much have to just try and time it to where I do grocery shopping on (Megan's) day off."

The couple has been planning date nights at home during the pandemic. Along with cooking together, they enjoy playing board games and watching movies.

They plan to keep things simple on Valentine's Day.

"I'll get her some flowers, but it's never really been a big one for us. We just do a little bit every day," Buddy said.

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